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      "Guns vs. Butter" - Israeli Style

      What comes first - the defense needs of the country, or the welfare of citizens? In Israel, it's a complicated question.
      By David Lev
      First Publish: 9/27/2011, 10:37 PM

      Professor Manuel Trachtenberg
      Professor Manuel Trachtenberg
      Flash 90

      How does the “gun vs. butter” debate – whether to funnel more money to defense needs or to helping citizens – play out in Israel? Until now, it hasn't, because no government was prepared to significantly cut the defense budget in favor of a civilian agenda.

      With the publishing Monday of the Trachtenberg Committee's report on lowering the cost of living in Israel,  the question of how Israel's resources should be used came into sharp focus. The report recommends a series of tax cuts and benefits for Israelis, such as the implementation of free education for children.

      Overall, the Trachtenberg committee recommends spending NIS 60 billion over the next five years on social needs  - most of the money, the committee's report says, to come from the defense budget.

      Naturally, the Defense Ministry and the IDF are against such a cut, and officials have gone on record stressing the dangers of cutting defense spending. A spokesperson for the Defense Ministry told Israel Radio Tuesday that cutting the defense budget would actually endanger Israelis.

      “Any cut in the defense budget will require us to manage the dangers and try to lessen the impact, but it is likely that some areas will remain exposed,” the official said, adding that “the decision to cut the defense budget is essentially an invitation for the convening of another Winograd Commission, and this time Treasury officials will be the ones answering the questions.”

      The Winograd Commission, convened after the Second Lebanon War, determined that the IDF was poorly prepared before it entered the war in 2006 – and the budget cuts in defense would lead to another tragedy, the official said, that would entail a similar investigation in the future.

      On Monday, a Defense Ministry official accused the Trachtenberg Committee of playing politics with the defense needs of the country. Current spending levels for defense were actually in line with the recommendations of the Winograd Commission, which projected the amounts that needed to be spent on defense for a decade – through 2016 – in order to rehabilitate the country's capabilities. 

      One source in the Ministry said that “the Treasury managed to avoid increasing the budget, to increase taxes, and to cut the defense budget using this report. These were goals that the Treasury has spoken about for a long time before the protests began and the Trachtenberg Committee. This gives us the feeling that they are using the report to damage the Defense Ministry's budget,” the source said.

      But in Israel, the question of guns vs. butter is far more complicated than the question of shifting money between differing needs, said IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz Tuesday.

      “The IDF is part of Israeli society and works for and with it,” meaning that as most Israelis serve the country via the IDF in one way or another, tampering with the defense budget will affect the very people the move is supposed to help. “The obligation of the IDF to provide for the security of Israelis is an important part of the future of Israel's citizens.”

      In response to the criticism, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz has responded by telling critics to stop “threatening Israelis with Winograd.” The Defense Ministry has a huge budget, and a small reduction will not hamper the IDF's ability to defend the country, Steinitz has said on several occasions.